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SpaceX, NASA Identify Problem That Caused Crew Dragon Spacecraft Explosion During April Engine Test

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SpaceX and NASA officials say that a propellant leak caused the unexpected destruction of a Crew Dragon spacecraft last April.

The accident took place while the vehicle's thruster systems were being tested on the ground at Cape Canaveral, Florida. While no one was injured due to safety precautions taken by both SpaceX and NASA, the Crew Dragon was completely destroyed in the explosion.

Now, SpaceX VP of Build & Flight Reliability Hans Koenigsmann and NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Kathy Lueders have revealed more on the unexpected crash and the results of their investigation.

Preliminary Findings Revealed

According to Koenigsmann, the investigators found identifying burn marks surrounding a check valve in the system designed to separate the oxidizer and fuel components under pressure. The check valves have a spring that's opened to let propellant components flow in the direction you want them to go. However, the leak in the check valve caused a "slug" consisting of a high-pressure oxidizer, which is a titanium component and resulted in the explosive accident.

The SpaceX representative added that the engineering team from the company is already fixing the hardware to make the Crew Dragon a safer vehicle and ensure it doesn't run in the same problem again. Specifically, the check valve will be replaced with a burst valve, which will completely separate both oxidizer and fuel from the pressurization liquids.

While these are just the preliminary findings and only about 80 percent of the investigation is completed, the officials expressed their confidence in the details that are being made public.

Future Plans For Crew Dragon

Prior to the accident, an uncrewed Crew Dragon 2 has already been successfully launched to the ISS in March. A two-week crewed test mission was supposed to be scheduled on July, but with the production and investigation still underway, the officials are not certain if a flight could be accomplished by the end of 2019.

Lueders explained that while it's always possible for NASA to fly a crew on a SpaceX spacecraft, they're focusing on all the tests of the various systems as of now.

"In a lot of ways, this was a gift for us," Lueders pointed out. "It was a test on the ground, we had a lot of instrumentation on the vehicle, we had high speed cameras, we were able to get the hardware and the data ... through this process, we will continue to learn things that will help us fly safer."

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